Kerrey: Starting off on the high road of politics On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

October 01, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- PRESIDENTIAL campaign announcement speeches are not necessarily a harbinger of a candidate's tone in the hurly-burly of a competitive campaign of the sort Sen. Bob Kerrey has now undertaken. The heat of the battle more often than not fires tempers and generates excesses.

Having noted that caveat, however, it can be reported that Kerrey's kickoff before an enthusiastic crowd here Monday struck a distinctly positive note, with a low quotient of partisan attack against the man in the White House Kerrey aspires to replace.

In calling for a "renewal in America" based "upon the idea of building for greatness," Kerrey rephrased the 1960 theme of John F. Kennedy to "get this country moving again," but with a minimum of direct criticism of President Bush.

Kerrey charged in general terms that "the staggering cost of malignant neglect can be seen in the frustrated faces of millions who cannot find work, or pay for health care, or make ends meet." And, at only 48 a candidate one generation removed from Bush, he warned that "that neglect will carve even deeper scars on our next generation."

He aimed his most biting criticism at the Reagan-Bush era without naming either man. "The year 1992 offers us a chance to break from a decade in which our leaders invited a season of cynicism," he said. "They invoked morality but winked at greed. They criticized the public sector but then robbed it blind. They spoke of balanced budgets but never submitted one. They railed against taxes but raised taxes on the middle class. They called for civil rights but practiced racial politics. They wrapped their cause in motherhood but then worked to deny motherhood of choice and meaningful opportunities."

The harshest Kerrey could manage against the Republican incumbent by name, however, was to say that "President Bush (( simply has not done all he could or should be doing," and he compared him to "some managers I've known in business; great person to be around, all his employees love him. But the business is losing money, it's future is impaired, and all he's offering is excuses as to why nothing can be done."

Kerrey, no doubt with an eye on the polls that show Bush's popularity remaining sky-high, told the crowd here that his campaign was "not so much a fight against George Bush as a fight for what America can be," and he specifically declared that "I do not believe that President Bush is the enemy."

Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown, in applauding the sudden rush of Democrats to challenge Bush, has said he believes a drumbeat of criticism against the president by the Democratic field will cut into his high standing in the polls. But Kerrey seemed more intent in his announcement speech on giving his own party a kick in the pants in an effort to dispel the notion that Bush can't be beaten.

"A more difficult enemy for us to defeat," he said, "is our own pessimism -- particularly in the Democratic Party -- that any effort matters, that anything we do will change the dangerous direction which America is heading today. I want the Democratic Party to become a can-do party again. We should become the party that put America back to work as we did during the Depression. We should become the party that reaches out to those bent low and raised our sights to the moon as we did in my generation. It is time again for us to do great things."

While focusing on neglected domestic needs, Kerrey briefly addressed foreign policy, attacking Japan for "restrictive, purely nationalistic trade policies" but commending Bush for his new unilateral nuclear arms reduction plans. Kerrey said he was proud and grateful when he heard Bush, "a proud man of the BTC Cold War generation, take the first concrete step beyond containment" of global communism.

Kerrey delivered his speech for the most part in a rather flat and straightforward manner, without the kind of bombastic cheer lines that Sen. Tom Harkin fed his audience at his announcement in Iowa two weeks ago. It may be that Kerrey wants to counter the impression of some that he is less serious than is warranted in a presidential candidate.

As the going gets tougher, he may succumb to temptation to deal in crowd-pleasing oratory. But for openers, he presented himself as a sober and thoughtful adversary who intends to keep Bush-bashing at a modest level and strive for the high road.

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